Why Police Should Practice ‘Broken Windows’ on Themselves

It's a matter not only of discipline but of a culture of collective morality.
March 10, 2015
By Samuel Johnson Jr.  |  Contributor
Senior managing director for Mangfold Group LLC and a former Baltimore police officer

The work slowdown by New York City police officers in January in the wake of the slayings of two NYPD officers, which came amid nationwide protests of the killings of African-Americans by police, was accompanied by accusations that New York Mayor Bill de Blasio had contributed to a hostile anti-police environment. But there is another factor in the strained relationships that exist between law enforcement and communities: "broken windows."

The zero-tolerance crime-control policy, which was first implemented in New York City and has spread to other cities, has certainly had an impact on crime, which has plummeted in New York and elsewhere. But that has come at a heavy cost to community-police relations, with members of minority groups feeling unjustly targeted. And continuing incidents of police brutality have raised a pivotal question: How can this occur within an institution ostensibly built on discipline and self-control?

Here are two answers to that question: While the broken-windows approach has been exercised for community control, police departments all too often don't apply such zero-tolerance discipline to their own officers' behavior. And in too many law-enforcement agencies there is an absence of collective morality--a lack of leadership consciousness that creates and nurtures organizational disorder and provides the perfect atmosphere for misconduct and corruption.

When police departments fail to act on minor infractions by their members, such as uniform violations or tardiness, some employees will test the system for the acceptance of disobedience and some will graduate to more serious infractions such as failing to properly handle calls for service. Before long, those untended behaviors can become even more serious, provoking not only citizen complaints of discourtesy but also accusations of excessive force and police brutality.

Richard T. De George, a professor of business ethics at the University of Kansas, has analyzed this issue in the context of police organizations, writing that these problems persist when no one feels responsible for them. Middle managers -- sergeants and lieutenants -- "don't feel responsible because they only carry out policy already decided somewhere else," De George writes, pointing out that all of this plays out against a backdrop of a hidden and mistaken assumption: "If I don't feel guilty about something, then I must not have done anything wrong."

This kind of thinking is emblematic of any organization with a poor management system. When middle managers are not empowered to make independent decisions, an institutionalized groupthink results. How does this happen? In a 2008 research paper, Allison T. Chappell, an associate professor at Old Dominion University, pointed to one contributing factor: Ninety percent of basic law-enforcement training is spent on task-oriented skills. That training is important, of course, but such a curriculum structure produces linear thinkers. Only 3 percent of police training, she writes, is focused on cognitive and decision-making scenarios -- situations that require not only non-linear reasoning but also the application of principles of ethics.

What's needed is clear: ethics-based training that addresses the sociological issues police officers will confront in the communities they serve -- training that reflects a top-down culture of collective morality and accountability. And law-enforcement agencies that practice broken-windows policing on their communities need to apply the approach to themselves as well.